Yankele Rotblit’s backyard

The veteran songwriter muses politics, rock ’n’ roll and working with the late Arik Einstein.

Yankele Rotblit with Itamar Zigler, Tomer Yossef 521 (photo credit: Asaf Sudri)
Yankele Rotblit with Itamar Zigler, Tomer Yossef 521
(photo credit: Asaf Sudri)
Yankele Rotblit has never pulled his punches. The 68-year-old wordsmith has been penning lyrics to hard-hitting songs for more than four decades, even though there is nothing overly acerbic about his texts.
Rotblit’s latest venture is a CD called Hehatzer Ha’ahorit (The Backyard), which he produced with three musicians many years his junior – pianist Gadi Ronen, guitarist, bass player and percussionist Itamar Zigler and drummer-percussionist Tomer Yossef. All three also sing on the album and have done Rotblit and his lyrics proud with their musical input, as will be clear at the upcoming CD launch concert at the Tzavta in Tel Aviv on December 11 (at 9 p.m.).
Yankele Rotblit with (left to right) musicians Itamar Zigler, Tomer Yossef and Gadi Ronen.Yankele Rotblit with (left to right) musicians Itamar Zigler, Tomer Yossef and Gadi Ronen.
Rotblit has a lot to say, largely about politics and the malaise of Israeli society, and it is mostly not too pretty. But he has a knack for conveying his ideas in the most highly palatable manner possible.
“I don’t blame anyone, and I don’t make demands,” he says. “I just talk about the way I feel and think about life here,” he says.
Rotblit’s musical muses include all the usual suspects from the cradle of 1960s rock and folk.
“I was into Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, older blues artists and, of course, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They’re my crowd,” he says.
Records and radio airplay for the above artist roll call were rare commodities in Israel when Rotblit was growing up, so he had to find his musical nutrition extraneously.
“We used to listen to Radio Ramallah,” he recalls. “That was one of the few places we could hear rock ’n’ roll.”
In addition to sharing his views on the status quo with the public, Rotblit has written the lyrics for many of the golden nuggets from the Israeli musical treasure trove. Consider songs like “Hozeh Lach Brach,” which was set to music by Shalom Hanoch and recorded by Oshik Levy, and the words he wrote for a whole spate of masterful songs such as “Ima Adama,” “Kama Tov Shebata Habayta” and “Ani Roeh Otach Baderech Lagymnasia.”
Most of the latter appeared in Arik Einstein’s 1971 record Badesheh Etzel Avigdor, to which Rotblit contributed seven of the 10 numbers. In fact, he and Einstein were due to renew their synergy.
“Arik rang me up about two weeks ago and said he wanted to work on a new project together,” says Rotblit sadly.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t manage it.”
Einstein, who for many was our “national singer,” died suddenly last week at the age of 74.
Even though Rotblit did not get to work with Einstein again, the legendary singer is indirectly referenced in Hehatzer Ha’ahorit. “Ma’aneh Koli” (Voice Mail), for which Ronen wrote the music and has been getting plenty of radio airplay in recent weeks, includes the phrase “rehoki sheli” – a playful expression for someone who is far away from his beloved. The original “Rehoki Sheli” is a poem written by Rachel which, among others, was recorded and performed by late 1960s The High Windows trio of Einstein, American-born singer Josie Katz and Shmulik Krauss.
And there is yet another link to Rotblit’s past with the pioneers of Israeli pop.
“‘Maaneh Koli’ was actually recorded on the day of Shmulik [Krauss]’s funeral [on February 17 this year],” notes Rotblit.
“I went to the funeral, and the musicians went to the studio to record the song.”
Ronen’s composition and the vocals are also highly reminiscent of the style of The High Windows. It is a neat throwback.
Hehatzer Ha’ahorit was some time in the making, mostly for logistical reasons.
“The Balkan Beat Box are always flying around the world,” explains Rotblit.
Yossef and Zigler are members of the said high-energy Balkan gypsy funk rock outfit.
“We’d record one song and then they’d fly abroad, so we’d take a break until they came back. It was a gradual process, and we had to raise funds to get the whole thing off the ground,” he says.
According to Rotblit, financial reality also has a detrimental effect on contemporary artists’ willingness to share their political credo.
“Musicians need audiences to make a living, and if they sing about politics and the bad things and how tough things are, people won’t come to hear them,” he muses. “In the past, you would find artists who’d tell things just the way they see them, but you don’t get that anymore. It’s a great shame. I don’t care because I know I’m not going to be a millionaire anyway, so I can tell my own truth without worrying about it.” Rotblit’s career as a lyricist got off to a flying start in 1968 when he wrote Shir Lashalom. It was first recorded by the Nahal IDF band and, more famously, by Miri Aloni, and eventually became something of a peace anthem.
Besides writing lyrics for some of our best-loved pop songs, Rotblit has also put out a few albums of his own. In 1978 he released his own first LP, Kach Shihrarti et Yerushalayim (That’s How I Liberated Jerusalem), which largely fed off his experiences as an officer in the Six Day War. He was badly wounded in a battle at Abu Tor in Jerusalem and lost a leg. It was a powerfully formative and painful experience.
“You could say I came out of that war traumatized and embittered,” he declares. “I had to deal with the trauma for many years after that. But back then, no one talked about post-trauma.
We were all supposed to be tough and impervious sabras. Now, thankfully, soldiers do get treatment for that.”
Hehatzer Ha’ahorit is a well-crafted item. The words convey Rotblit’s messages in a succinctly smooth manner, and the music clearly feeds off the lyrics across a wide spectrum of styles, from rap to old-style Israeli folk-pop and much in between.
Ronen says he was delighted to join forces with Rotblit again.
“We started working together eight years ago, when we did Medinat Hayehudim Part 1, and then Part 2,” he says.
Ronen first got turned on to the lyricist’s work as the result of his absence from this country as a child.
“I lived in Holland between the ages of 10 and 14, and when I came back to Israel I wanted to catch up on the music I’d missed from here, and I also dug into past stuff. That’s when I discovered Yankele’s songs. I really liked them from the start,” he explains.
Ronen says the music, and particularly Rotblit’s lyrics, helped to fill the fouryear void.
“The words sounded so connected with Israel, and it helped me to reconnect.
The lyrics in Hehatzer Ha’ahorit are just as powerful, and it was a pleasure to work on the album with him and Itamar and Tomer. The words are very critical, but you can feel his love for Israel in there, too,” he says.
Rotblit goes along with that sentiment.
“I cannot imagine myself living anywhere else, even with all the problems and the things we need to deal with here. My sister moved to San Francisco after the Yom Kippur War and I recently visited her. Life is nice and calm there, but Israel is my home,” he asserts.
For tickets and more information about the Tzavta concert: 03-6950156 ext. 2 and http://misterticket.co.il/he/show/hazer-zavta